The bumper sticker on the back of the beat-up green Mini Cooper my kids drive reads, “Thank you, dark!” under a bank of what most people would call spotlights, but which I’ve learned are more precisely termed Source Fours.
My sons work the technical side of theater: building sets, managing rehearsals, and designing the lighting for shows. They balance precariously on tall ladders to wrestle those ungainly Source Fours into position on the battens. They write elaborate computer codes to control the lights, their hands dancing over the light board. And when the time comes to perform, they say, “Lights 1, ready; lights 1, go!” and there is light.
They are grateful for the dark because they know the wonders of their lighting plans can only reveal themselves if it’s dark in the theater. One has to be willing to turn off the house lights and, for just a moment, sit in the dark, waiting for that moment when the stage comes to life. Paradoxically, the dark is what enables us to see the light. I wonder if that is why I find praying in the darkness so appealing—it makes seeing God’s plan for me easier.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius recommends spending one period of prayer in the middle of the night, around midnight. In his contemporary reading of the Exercises, David Fleming, SJ, suggests that in these midnight meditations we are rested and receptive to God in ways hard to manage when the world is bustling about. When I made the Exercises, I took Ignatius’s advice to heart, praying at midnight, and regularly returning for a last period of meditation from two to three in the morning.
At that hour the retreat house was incredibly silent, the chapel so still I could almost hear the flame in the presence lamp shimmering. “Empty yourself,” said St. Romuald in his Rule, “and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” In those nights, empty of noise, empty of people, God taught me to sit and wait, to empty myself, that I might be filled with the graces he desired to give me, able to see more clearly where I might walk when I left that retreat.
Even now, years later, I find the memories of those emptied nights drawing me to prayer after the neighborhood has begun to quiet for the night. I am encouraged to open my hands and once again let go of all the things I’ve been clinging to, the things that limit my freedom. There is a spaciousness to these night hours, too, a potent reminder of the limitlessness of God. Time opens up. There are no alerts pinging on my computer, no students tapping at the door, no dinner to be made or cleaned up. Sometimes I sit outside on the stoop and gaze up at the night sky, the infinite universe spread out before me like the eternal God’s face.
“I come home from the soaring…” writes poet Rainer Marie Rilke in his Book of the Monastic Life. “Now I am still and plain: no more words…But deep in the darkness is God.” I wait in the darkness, that I might know Light, now and forever.